Aaron Boone’s decision to go to Adam Ottavino in the fifth inning was the turning point of Game 2 in the ALCS.
It is important to acknowledge that this scenario was a result of the maddening ineffectiveness of James Paxton. The failings of Big Maple put Boone in a very tough position. Despite having the best bullpen in the game, it is difficult to manage your pen for eight innings. Paxton failed. He absolutely needs to do a better job in these playoff games. He was brought in for these specific starts and not a dominating performance against Texas in September. This poor start also doesn’t excuse Boone from making a costly oversight.
Before moving forward, it feels appropriate to address the lack of offense from the Yankees in Game 2. Many people want to place the majority of blame for the loss on the Yankees’ lineup. There is certainly a case to be made. The hitters had an inconsistent approach against an effective, but far from dominant, Justin Verlander. The lineup was overwhelmed by the Astros embattled bullpen. They had pitches to hit and missed. There were opportunities to put up runs and they didn’t come through.
On the flip side, we’re going to see really well pitched games at times. Teams are facing the best staffs in the league in October. The pitchers are both extremely talented and capable of executing pitches multiple times in an at bat. The Astros are having a hard time scoring against the Yankees as well. Houston has only scored three runs in two games at home during this series. Their lineup had multiple chances to put up runs last night and they were shut down by Yankees pitching. There wasn’t a hit in the game from the sixth to the tenth innings. It was a night for the pitchers, so asking hitters to just knock in a few runs is much easier said than done. Unfortunately, the Yankees weren’t facing any Uber drivers.
With this context in mind, every managerial move is crucial. There is very little room for error. I recently wrote on Aaron Boone’s improved decision making this season. Boone is more pro-active and aggressive with his bullpen management. It is night and day from last postseason. He also did a really good job for most of Game 2. But the decision to replace Chad Green with Adam Ottavino felt like a decision rooted in overthinking rather than nuanced aggressiveness. It was a crucial factor in the loss.
Derek wrote a great piece on the numbers behind Boone’s decision. Logically, this decision makes sense. Springer likes high velocity and Chad Green certainly brings it. It feels like a no brainer. In this instance though, data based logic needed to take a back seat to what the game was telling us. Chad Green was dominating the Astros lineup. The ball was effortlessly coming out of his hand. He had excellent command. And most importantly, the swings of the Astros hitters were providing all the information the Yankees staff needed. Green was overmatching Houston. There was nothing from his performance that suggested he was laboring or feeling the effects of a high workload. The numbers said one thing, but the on field action was suggesting something different.
Despite the clear trend of last night’s game, Aaron Boone stuck with the script. Here is Ottavino on when he was told he would enter the game from Tom Verducci’s piece on SI:
When the previous inning ended. They told me I had the second hitter [Springer].Adam ottavino
Chad Green blew Kyle Tucker away with ease prior to George Springer’s at bat. At that point, he completed two dominant innings with just 26 pitches. Green was in a position to continue eating up outs and delaying the moment in which Boone had to use another bullpen arm. In many ways, Green was making things a bit easier for Boone and his pen management. Instead, Boone ignored all of that and went with the plan™.
Beyond that, the recent performance of Adam Ottavino should have factored into the decision. Otto struggled at the end of the regular season and that continued in the ALDS. He was the designated Nelson Cruz weapon and earned mixed results. The logic behind Ottavino’s approach to Springer was a bit curious as well. Here are some more Ottavino quotes from Verducci:
He hit a slider [in Game 1]. Obviously the more exposure a hitter gets against a pitcher in a series the more it helps the hitter…I knew he was probably looking breaking ball first pitch. We had a one-run lead, nobody on base and I was just trying to get ahead. I have a lot of confidence in the slider, obviously. I wanted it down and away. I was going to err on the side of throwing a strike…I was expecting a swing. It just came out early [from the hand]. Not idealAdam Ottavino
There are a few things from this quote that immediately shifts the at bat into George Springer’s favor. Springer smoked an Ottavino slider the night before. Despite being aware that Springer was going to hunt another slider, Ottavino obliged. There appeared to be no consideration of throwing a fastball (despite Otto having a really good one). In addition, Ottavino was looking for a get me over slider instead of one Springer would chase. If you know Springer wants a slider and you want to give him one, why not try to throw your best version of it?
There is a theory believed by some that if you know a hitter is looking for a certain pitch you deliver it to the extreme. So if you know a hitter is looking up in the zone, you throw a pitch above the zone. If you believe a hitter is looking off speed, you bury it knowing they’re going to offer at it. It is certainly possible that Ottavino was really confident in his slider regardless of where he was looking to locate it and he just hung one. It happens all the time.
But this brings us back to the issue of a manager trusting his information and plan versus trusting his eyes. The game is suggesting Green is the better option in that moment because of how well he’s throwing. The numbers can’t measure present time. They can only guide a decision based on past performance. It is admittedly a difficult line to toe, but it is the responsibility of the manager to weigh all factors both pre-determined and in a game setting.
There is also a more fundamental human element to all of this. The playoffs are about moments. They don’t always rely upon the trends and tendencies of a full regular season. There should be times when a manager says “I know what the numbers say, but my guy is pitching his ass off and he’s going to fucking get you out. He’s better than you today.” We’ve seen instances of this in the postseason (we also saw another Dave Roberts special, but he is in his own category at this point). Sometimes sheer competitive bravado should win the day.
The Yankees did not lose Game 2 of the ALCS solely because of Aaron Boone’s decision and Springer’s home run. James Paxton failed to do his job. The Yankees offense needed better at bats and couldn’t continually miss mistake pitches. JA Happ can’t miss his target by a foot to a hitter like Carlos Correa. It is also a real possibility that Chad Green gives up a bomb to Springer. This is also not to suggest that Ottavino won’t come up huge in a big spot later in the series. With all of that said, the Astros were put in a position to steal a game when the manager refused to read the game in the fifth inning. It will be fun to see how things play out if this scenario emerges once again.